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Don't be fooled by No. 3

In the midst of a spirited gubernatorial race and a slate of important statewide elections, Amendment 3 hasn't gotten much attention. It should. Amendment 3, a proposed change to Florida's Constitution that was put on the ballot at the urging of city and county governments, is an honest attempt to stop the state Legislature from dumping expensive programs on cities and counties. Its aim is to prevent what local governments call "unfunded mandates" _ laws adopted by the state that require cities and counties to spend money, but don't provide any more money.

Clearly, such mandates are irresponsible. Un-fortunately, so is this proposed solution.

Amendment 3 would require a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to adopt any law that isn't

supplied with taxes that have "been estimated atthe time of enactment to be sufficient to fund such expenditure." At the same time, it would give cities and counties the explicit right to ignore any law not meeting that extraordinary constitutional test.

The danger is not the theory, but the practice. If Amendment 3 truly would bring discipline to the legislative process, then it would be a blessing to state government. More likely, it will butt heads with good laws, and the public will lose. The sad truth is that the Legislature seldom finances its own laws adequately. Almost every major environmental initiative adopted in the past decade has been approved first and financed later. Each year, lawmakers adopt stricter criminal sentencing laws without providing corresponding money for new prison beds.

In the real and admittedly skewed legislative world of Tallahassee, a higher constitutional threshold for laws affecting cities and counties means those laws might never be enacted. In thepast few years, the casualties could have been such laws as: the landmark 1985 Growth Management Act, still not adequately supported by taxes; the Surface Waters and Improvement Act (SWIM), which provided some state money for major water body cleanup but dumped other responsibilities on water districts and cities and counties; and a requirement that new apartment housing be accessible for people in wheelchairs.

Those who understand the legislative process also seem to recognize the potential dangers.

Dan Hendrickson of the Florida League of Conservation Voters told the Associated Press the amendment would be an "environmental disaster" and "inhibit the Legislature from passing any new strengthened environmental regulation." Paul Jess of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers said the amendment would bring about a "fundamental shift in the balance of constitutional power in this state." D. Marshall Barry, a Florida International University economist, said the amendment could stop laws "that might improve the quality of life in Florida," ranging from growth management, environmental regulation, building codes, the courts, police and fire protection and workers' compensation.

Though the amendment does provide exemptions for general appropriation acts, criminal laws and laws with "insignificant fiscal impact," it leaves too many unanswered and potentially sticky questions. What happens when the Legislature has to amend the Growth Management Act? Will builders then get a chance to file a lawsuit challenging growth laws? Will they get to argue that growth management should be abolished because cities and counties don't have the money for new roads?

Amendment 3 is an invitation for mischief, especially at a time when cities and counties are being given more responsibilities for development growth and the environment _ responsibilities they don't always welcome with open arms.

City and county government officials are telling voters that unfunded mandates are "taxation without representation," but that's misleading. The voters do have representation in Tallahassee, and they have a chance Tuesday to change those representatives. The best way to stop bad lawmaking is to get rid of bad lawmakers.